Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Economy Built on Affection

Emily Belz


June 8, 2012

By Emily Belz

Likely the only time you’ll see anyone wearing a plaid shirt with a flapping hole in the elbow arrive for an evening at Washington’s Kennedy Center is if Wendell Berry is speaking.

In late April, the Kentucky poet-scholar-farmer drew a crowd of thousands; threadbare attendees mingled with policy makers, lobbyists and think-tankers. In the chamber that usually hosts the National Symphony Orchestra, Berry wove stories of his family together with themes of his life’s work—commitment to place, affection for the earth, an economy based on relationship and a suspicion of unfettered capitalism. Berry titled his lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” a line drawn from E.M. Forster’s Howards End. He described the climatic confrontation between Forster’s heroine Margaret and her businessman husband, where she resisted his “hardness of mind and heart that is ‘realistic’ only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls.”

Berry translated Margaret’s commitment to affection over expediency to the economy. Economic decisions are not about just being "realistic" and "practical"— they should be decisions based on values deeper than dollar signs. “We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful,” Berry said. “When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.” He questions economists who would do “permanent ecological and cultural damage to ‘strengthen the economy.’” Berry thinks neither political party is equipped to address the “losses and damages of our present economy”—the problems are bigger than Washington.

It’s not unusual for Berry to talk about the economy, but other preeminent cultural minds have also started to talk about the question of our spluttering economy and what the political debates we’re having now mean. Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, includes a piece titled “Austerity as Ideology,” in which she reproaches the current zeal to cut public spending. She, like Berry, hints that society “all turns on affection.” Also like Berry, Robinson doesn’t have anything good to say about either party; she argues both are operating, and have operated since World War II, as though the nation is under a constant threat to its existence.

“Anxiety has taken on a life of its own. It has become a sort of succubus on our national life,” she writes. “Yet fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform, and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them ‘Western civilization’ would be an empty phrase.” 

Berry and Robinson come to slightly different conclusions about what to do to solve our nation’s economic woes. Berry aspires to a more restrained view of government's place in civil society than Robinson does. But they recognize the same theme: Humans shouldn’t make economic decisions as though they were islands unto themselves. When we do, we damage a fragile web of relationships that are not only political but cultural, ecological and spiritual. 

“We do not have to live as if we are alone,” Berry concluded, walking away from the podium so quickly it took the audience a few moments to realize the lecture was over. It was the kind of unpolished stage exit that comes from someone who is not a politician.

—Emily Belz is a reporter in Washington, D.C., covering politics for WORLD magazine.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”